The Riding Crop Dilemma: A Commentary

Mike E. Smith is leading the charge against the New Jockey Crop Rules
Mike E. Smith is leading the charge against the New Jockey Crop Rules

Imagine a four-walled, sparsely decorated Rauschenberg-inspired room - bright white. Other than the Formica table and matching seating that is all bolted to the floor, this spartan room is equipped only with a door and a two-way mirror.

There are a pair of these cubes designed as holding cells. As we speak, the occupants in each of these spaces are being held as “suspects.” Neither has committed a crime per se; it is their perspectives that are in question because they are so opposed to one another. Thus, each entity is being figuratively “held” by the authorities, waiting to submit for questioning. The silhouettes behind the mirrors hope that the isolation of each side will assist them in extracting the proper evidence, so they can reach a decision on how to proceed.

What could possibly divide them? Is there an antidote to this situation?

Holding #1…

We have a group of eight huddled around that rectangle. They are pensive, slowly scratching, scrawling, and doodling notes on torn individual pieces of paper. None smoke (not healthy), but some secretly wish they could, just to take the edge off. A few sigh and roll their eyes as the low din of the fluorescence radiates like a Dan Flavin piece. All hope this goes quickly.

Small talk leads to one salvo where someone poses the obvious question, “This is about the riding crop use, isn’t it?” See, these are the members of the California Horse Racing Board, a body that governs the sport in the 2nd largest state in the Union. Ovals in their jurisdiction include officiating eminent racetracks like Santa Anita and Del Mar.

The oligarchy has taken some major criticism in the “Court of Public Opinion” (which includes those that know something about racing and those that do not) over the past year and a half concerning a myriad of issues. That number encompasses everything from horse fatality rates to the most recent passage of CHRB 1688 (Use of the Riding Crop). The latter has created a clamor around places like Santa Anita, where the cacophony by the jockey colony has led to open letters of protest and the whispers of outright protest.

As an organization, CHRB has voiced its commitment to the riding crop ban, concreting their position around safety culture. The new rules are not revolutionary by international standards, but for America, they are. CH1688 includes, the sparing use of the foam stick during a race to 6 times, disallowing riders to raise their hands above their shoulders in application, and to ban and/or fine jockeys who attempt to claim they had to implement the crop to avert a dangerous situation. These are the core tenets and the group remains steadfast.

Meanwhile…over in Holding #2…

While the CHRB await their questioners, over in the other room, the discussion is decidedly non-existent. That’s because one lone soul leans against one wall in quiet contemplation. Arms folded, head cocked to one side. He is the representative sent by the group that most feels impacted by the CHRB 1688. The Co-Chair of the Jockey’s Guild of America, he has spent his entire life riding since he dropped out of school and began working around horses. It’s Mike Smith, HOFer, Triple Crown-Breeders’ Cup King, and internationally-known jockey.

For Smith, the changes that the CHRB chose to make did not include perspectives from riders. Recently, he penned an open letter of protest, civilly and conscientiously line-by-line outlining the position of California jockeys on the changes with the riding crop. His collective message was one of serious concern for the health and safety of the membership.

As he sees it, there continues to be a socio-economic gap between the rule makers and those that must follow them. Despite some input from jockeys (including Board Member Alex Solis), it was not enough in his mind because these standards are not workable. In other words, if the CHRB doesn’t amend them, they will have blood on their hands.

Smith speaks passionately and lets his record speak for itself. There is no greater celebrity in the sport in North America than him. So, when he speaks, people inside the sport and out, listen. Now, he stands for an argument that has a long history: 1200-pound animals can crush a human being, especially one that weighs around 118. There must be a method of control and the ability to know when to professionally exercise that option.

Whips, now called riding crops, after the innovations of former jockey Ramon Dominguez, are not weapons. According to Smith they do not hurt the animals, rather they are just tools of the trade. Take that away, and dangerous conditions become exacerbated. Smith leans up against the wall in the holding room, waiting for the chance to make his case even clearer. He represents the jockeys’ ways of old, and he is fine with that, especially if it means keeping the instrument.

Application of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”…

While the CHRB and Mike Smith are not “prisoners,” their points of view (POV) on the riding crop issue could be deemed as such - creating an impasse. The former enacted a set of changes that, according to the latter, have negatively impacted the circumstances in ways that will change racing in California forever.

This roadblock has explosive consequences. I think one means to solve this, or at least a way forward, is to examine it from what is called the “prisoner’s dilemma.” In case you do not know, this is a oft-cited theoretical framework based in game theory. It was devised back in the 1950s by some members of the RAND Group, one of the first privatized think-tanks to come out of the Office of Scientific Research and Development after 1945. Those were the guys that helped to develop the atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project.  

Originally, the framework begins with two members of a criminal gang that are arrested and are being held in solitary confinement. The detectives holding them do not have enough evidence to charge them with a primary crime, but do on a lesser charge. A choice is on the table for the accused, betray the other by spilling the beans or stay silent. Betrayal by both leads to prison sentences of say two years. If the first one talks and the other stays silent, then the gabber gets off, and the mum one goes away for three years - and this also plays out vice versa. Finally, if both refuse the authorities, they can only tag each of them with a one-year sentence.

The game assumes that both detainees are rational, will not seek retribution later, and understand that betraying one another leads to a better outcome for themselves and not the other. What the game reveals on the surface is that self-interest will always trump cooperation if either one only seeks to save their own skin.

Human behavior, which has now been studied for centuries, generally yields the belief that cooperation is antithetical to doing the right thing for the greater good. I bet you have watched this bread-n-butter scenario play out in countless police dramas. Right now, as I see it, we are in a “prisoner’s dilemma” when it comes to solving the new rules imposed by the CHRB concerning the riding crop. Each side has reasons for possibly betraying the other. For instance, the CHRB is attempting to look progressive, ever-mindful of the public opinion monster that hit them so hard with a sledgehammer back in 2019. They think they gathered everyone’s opinions on this matter, but clearly that is not the case.

Likewise, Mike Smith believes he is acting quite rational, and if you read his letter to CHRB it is packed with references meant to accentuate how these alterations in the rules will be detrimental to the sport—jockeys, bettors, connections, etc. It appears he epitomizes a swath of interests, but what of his own? It may be in the guise of representing the California jockeys, but let’s not forget he is influencer. I found parts of his argument, and an interview he gave on The Paulick Report this past week, to be fairly immobile and rooted in past precedent. Certainly, safety is a major component of his message, but change was certainly not.

Resolution by Equilibrium…

If we are studying this situation, rationally, then it looks to be hurtling towards disaster. If CHRB remains fixed, then that might force Smith and the jockeys to flee California. If top jocks Prat, Rispoli, Gutierrez and all the others members of the colony pick up stakes, then the whole racing system could collapse.

Maybe it is time for those behind the glass in the holding rooms to use their own influence to assist in negotiations. Self-interest will only lead to mutual assured destruction. The dilemma here is that each side will not change their position if they do not think doing so will improve their own position. That’s called the Nash Equilibrium (after the economic Nobel genius John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind movie fame). Not good, in general, but possibly necessary., or…

In the end, what will help everyone is to think about a mutual assured compromise. Returning to the ubiquitous “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in its very simplest form, it reminds us that putting aside one’s own desires has benefits for the whole - even though it isn’t apparent. We need to remember that our hypothetical isn’t based in the real world, even though the issues presented in it are. Memories are long sometimes, and building coalitions and using political pressure can make two sides that are out for themselves, return to rational-thinking in a much different way than originally intended. I’d wager that Smith and California riders are wanting to stay (and the CHRB does too!), but they both need time in order to eventually come together.

The antidote to this conundrum is to harness the two-way mirror in our fictitious holding room. There we find our interrogators, the “Court of Public Opinion.” If turfwriting outlets, racing enthusiasts, and the masses see both sides uniting for the greater good around the horses for safety, then the “Riding Crop Dilemma” can be solved.

And maybe, just maybe, it could serve as the model for the rest of the sport.

Now that is an interrogation.

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